Women Food and God #2: Facing the Scary Place
Hello Mill Valley Book Club! Welcome to Geneen Roth’s luminous book Women Food and God. You’re gonna love it! The fact that you’re here means you’re at least curious about this topic. Maybe it’s your own personal struggle, or maybe someone close to you battles his/her weight.
Right now, let’s just focus on understanding the mechanisms behind food abuse (substitute any addiction here). Once we’ve done that, we can explore our options for making a new choice and breaking the addiction. I don’t believe it makes sense to try to fix something until you understand what’s broken and why. So let’s start there.
Food Abuse – What’s It All About?
Obviously, everyone needs to eat. Food is one of those things that all living creatures must take in for sustenance. The problem comes when we’ve lost the art of eating only what nourishes us and only in the amounts that our body needs. In Western society, it’s obvious that problems with eating have reached epidemic proportions. So what’s really going on?
For most people facing food issues, it’s safe to say that life is stressful at times. Maybe it’s our work, maybe it’s our relationship, maybe raising children, health issues, facing an uncertain future – there are unlimited sources of stress all around us. Those may be the practical stresses we face; and what about the emotional stresses? A frightening number of people suffer from daily anxiety or depression; for many, the cause is unknown, but all is not well. Here’s where food (or any addiction) comes in.
In moments where our stress feels too acute, or our feelings feel too painful, we reach for some way to numb – to disappear for a while – until the stress or pain subsides. You can’t tell me that a big bag of Oreos doesn’t make you feel better. Well… it’s great going down, but then what? The escape is temporary, and then we’re left with the aftermath.
My Freshman Fifteen
I remember in college when my binge-buddy and I would walk to Store 24 in Harvard Square at midnight (even when it was snowing), knowing full well what we would buy. I’d get the Cool Ranch Doritos, and he chose the Entenmann’s chocolate cake in a square box. It’s not hard to figure out how that Freshman Fifteen happened! Then we’d go back to the dorm and have our little food fest, my fork in his cake and his hand in my bag of chips. About an hour later, we’d lay back on the bean bag chairs, groaning at each other miserably and wondering why we just did that, knowing (but choosing to ignore) that probably a few nights later, we’d do it again.
My binge-buddy turned out to be a wildly intelligent gay man who eventually came out of the closet and enjoyed an incredibly successful career at Microsoft. We’ve lost touch, but I can only imagine that the Doritos and chocolate cake numbed him from feeling the pain of having to keep his true identity a secret. At the time, I didn’t even know he was gay, not that I would’ve cared. But it wasn’t something we discussed. At Harvard in 1985, not many gay men and women were out.
As for me, freshman year at Harvard was when I lost my identity, at least the one I had created for myself during high school – smart, successful, constantly achieving, building my college application resume, a fierce competitor. I didn’t know then, though I do now, that my spirit was crying inside because it had been banished. At that time, I honestly believed that my value equated only to what I achieved. And after what felt like years of superhuman effort in high school, I arrived at Harvard literally unable to take one more step – exhausted and burned out.
The other problem was that while I was so busy creating this smart, successful, Harvard persona, I missed the opportunity to find out who I really was. I actually had no idea, and wouldn’t find out until my early 40’s. But these were the pains – conscious and subconscious feelings of inadequacy – that brought me to abuse my body with food. Something was terribly wrong inside me, and I just didn’t know how to deal with it.
Each of us has our own story, our own pains. Some people numb with food, others use work, alcohol, drugs, exercise, sex, shopping, surfing the Internet, etc. Our method of numbing may not be uniform, but the emotional experience of it is the same. We use that addiction to avoid feeling our feelings, confronting and understanding what’s really going on. The problem is that it is only a temporary diversion and often leaves us feeling even worse about ourselves than before, especially when poor body image enters the equation. The cycle is painful and endless.
Healing Step One: Notice the Desire to Bolt
As Geneen says, “The obsession will stop when the bolting stops.” When we encounter difficult or painful feelings, the desire to bolt, to leave our bodies for a while, to numb, is almost irresistible. Geneen gives this example of how she replied to a letter from one of her workshop students. The student explained that her parents had been married for sixty years and just a few days earlier, her mother had quite literally lost her mind. She and her father checked her mother into a mental facility. She said in her letter, “I have no idea how I’m going to get through this.” But here’s what Geneen said:
Here’s how you get through it. You allow yourself to sob, to heave, to feel as if your heart has a boulder crashing through it. You sit with your father. You listen to his sorrow. You get help from your friends. And you notice that at the end of every day you are still alive. And you notice that when you don’t use food to shut yourself down, to leave your body, you actually feel more alive. That feeling anything, even grief, is different from what you thought it would be. That when you don’t leave yourself, a different life is lived. One that includes vulnerability and tenderness and fragility and changes the landscape – makes it verdant, wider, breathtaking – of life as you know it. – Women Food and God, p. 41
So first you must recognize that urge, quite possibly overwhelming, to bolt. This takes some presence of mind, some awareness, which might be a new and difficult experience at first. But just try, without putting any pressure on yourself to do anything else; just notice. And if you do notice, give yourself a pat on the back for noticing. Then eat what you want. That’s all. Do that for a few days or a few weeks (or however long you want). But first just build your muscle of noticing. This is the first step.
Healing Step Two: Don’t Bolt
Once you’ve developed your nice, big “noticing” muscle, you may be ready for the next step: making the conscious choice to stay with yourself, to not bolt away from the scary place where you might have to feel your feelings.
Just put the brakes on. Before you reach for the chips or the candy (or whatever), ask yourself if you’re actually hungry. Ask yourself what you really need right now to address the emotions you’re feeling. We all know that the chips and the candy aren’t going to ease the emotions; what eases the emotions is the act of allowing them, of feeling them, of letting them pass through you, then releasing them. And then you’ll notice that you’re actually still okay.
In finding the capacity to not bolt, but rather to process through the hard emotions and painful feelings, you’ll discover a place inside yourself that may be totally new and foreign, and incredibly empowering. It’s the place where things just are whatever they are, with no judgment and no characterization. A place of unconditional acceptance and love for yourself. I don’t know many people who practice unconditional self-love, but this is what we most desperately need – to love and accept ourselves just as we are, right now. This experience – of finding that love for ourselves – is transformative.
Our work [at Geneen’s food workshops] is not to change what you do, but to witness what you do with enough awareness, enough curiosity, enough tenderness that the lies and old decisions upon which the compulsion is based become apparent and fall away. When you no longer believe that eating will save your life when you feel exhausted or overwhelmed or lonely, you will stop. When you believe in yourself more than you believe in food, you will stop using food as if it were your only chance at not falling apart. When the shape of your body no longer matches the shape of your beliefs, the weight disappears. And yes, it really is that simple. – Women Food and God, p. 81
Right this minute, as I’m writing this blog, I’m processing my own readiness to give up my food habit. I’m not quite ready, but you know what might make me feel ready? If I knew that I could find something else, something (healthy) to take the place of food. Something that could hold me tenderly, lovingly as I walk into the scary place.
In next week’s blog, I’ll tell you what I think that special something just might be.